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Four Things to Do Before You Write That Retort

We’ve all been there. A coworker, a client, a manager, an employee, a parent, a friend, a colleague has done something that really ticked you off. They forgot an important deadline, messed with your project, or ignored your request.

And now you’ve got a huge email written out that might contain some words in all caps, a few exclamation points, and maybe a couple ultimatums. Or maybe, if you’re a little quieter, you left out your usual happy exclamation points, word softeners, and cheery salutations. Your finger is hovering over send, but before you jump down the rabbit hole, there are a few things you should do first.

1. Take a breath

It may be obvious, but that doesn’t make it easy. When we’re angry, it’s easy to react in one of two ways: passive aggression and open aggression. Passive aggression usually comes from those who don’t like or fear confrontation. We’re all familiar with the one-word response to a long email: the dreaded “Ok” devoid of punctuation and supporting language.

Open aggression is a result of anger unleashed without restraint in an attempt to hurt or halt someone else. Open aggression often comes in the form of sarcasm, blaming, shouting, or name-calling.

While they may be satisfying in the moment, neither of those responses will help you in the long run. What you want to be aiming for is assertion, not aggression. A message that is clear, thought out, direct, measured, and open-minded.

2. Decide on a goal

If you want your response to make a difference, then you need to clarify what you’re hoping to get out of it. Do you want the person to change their behavior, or just understand and appreciate why you’re frustrated? Do you want to change how things are going forward? Do you want an apology or an explanation?

Define your goal and then integrate that intention into your response. This will help you identify what you want and guide you in finding a solution. It will also create an opportunity for closure. Once your defined need/goal is met or addressed, you’ll have an easier time moving on. No one likes to hold grudges. Or at least they shouldn’t.

 3. Look at the bigger picture

Sometimes widening your perspective can be the best thing for a relationship. Take the time to ask yourself these questions:

  • Is there something going on with them in their personal life that might be affecting their behavior at work?
  • How might they see this conflict? What has your role been in their eyes?
  • How do they seem to prefer to communicate?

Maybe they have a personal issue stopping them from following through or communicating effectively. Maybe they are dealing with other problems at work that are drawing their attention and energy. Maybe they don’t feel understood by you or feel you’re not holding up your end of the bargain.

Remember, everyone brings their whole lives to each conversation, fight, and relationship. More often than not, people react to you based on their perceptions and internal stories rather than your actions. So trying to understand the other person’s actions from their point of view can be invaluable in helping you see the situation more clearly and find a solution. It may also highlight areas where you had misconceptions about them and their situation.

Finally, if you’re able to meet the other person where they are most comfortable communicating, you’ll be more likely to make headway. Maybe this isn’t a conversation for email. It might be more effective to have it in person, or over the phone, or with a moderator.

4. Come up with actionable follow-ups

To prevent this sort of thing from happening again, it can be useful to come up with a few clear steps you can take to avoid future conflicts.

  • Once you’ve settled your disagreement, set up a follow-up meeting in a couple of days to talk about how things are going. Meeting after you’ve both had a chance to process feelings may allow you to come together with less volatility to talk about what worked/didn’t work and what changes you can make for future interactions.
  • Define how you could have improved your end of the conflict. What can you do better next time? What did you learn from this?

Go forward, but with caution

You may be angry and rightly so. But if you let your anger speak for you, you’ll end up regretting it. Stop. Breathe. Reflect. Do yourself a favor and step back before responding.

You’ll thank yourself in the long run. Especially as we are all navigating the difficulties of self-isolation, working from home, and communicating remotely, it’s more important than ever to deal with conflict productively and thoughtfully. Just make sure that you do respond eventually. Hanging on to anger builds grudges, communication gaps, and lowers morale for everyone. Be proactive. Be patient. Be kind. You’ve got this.

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